The Whiteboard: Picks for 2021 NBA All-Star reserves

Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

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The starters for the 2021 NBA All-Star Game were announced last week, and on Tuesday, we’ll find out which 14 players (seven from each conference) were voted in as reserves by the league’s 30 head coaches.

The votes have already been cast, but because there’s so much talent in the NBA right now (and because people either love this topic or hate this topic and simply need something to complain about), we had to officially submit our picks for which 14 players deserve to get in as reserves.

Remember, each conference has two backcourt spots, three frontcourt spots and two wildcards that could go to a player of any position for these seven All-Star reserves. Without further ado, here are our picks to round out each roster for the NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference reserves:

James Harden (backcourt) — Say what you will about the man’s ugly exit from Houston or how he spends his free time in a pandemic, but Harden has sacrificed his shots and isolation plays to make this Big 3 work. You could honestly make the case for him to start in the East, because even though his scoring numbers are down (and by “down” we still mean at a top-20 level), he’s posting career highs in assists (11.4 per game, also a league-high), rebounds (8.3 per game), field-goal percentage (50.2 percent) and 3-point percentage (41.0 percent) since joining the Brooklyn Nets … who are 13-5 since his arrival and have weathered a storm of injuries because of his playmaking.

Jaylen Brown (backcourt) — Like Harden, there was a case to be made for Brown as a starter in the East thanks to the career year he’s having for the Boston Celtics. Averaging a career-high 25.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game on .497/.409/.766 shooting splits, Brown has emerged as a top-20 scorer who’s a threat from all three levels, an improved ball-handler and arguably the best two-way guard in the East this season.

Jayson Tatum (frontcourt) — Tatum is still the alpha in Boston’s offense, however, averaging 26.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He hasn’t been as efficient as Brown, nor is he the same caliber of defender, but he’s still exceptionally good on that end of the floor. Even with the Celtics barely above .500, the star power of the two Jays is too much to ignore in the All-Star conversation.

Khris Middleton (frontcourt) — Middleton may only rank 40th in scoring, but his 20.5 points per game are coming on borderline 50-40-90 shooting splits (.505/.431/.895). In addition to that kind of absurd efficiency, he’s also putting up 6.0 rebounds and a career-high 5.7 assists per game. The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t dominant enough to warrant a third All-Star, especially with Jrue Holiday missing games, but Middleton’s been too good to leave out.

Domantas Sabonis (frontcourt) — Rounding out the three frontcourt spots is Sabonis, who’s quietly putting up bonkers numbers for an Indiana Pacers squad that started off hot but has since cooled off. In any case, the Pacers are still fourth in the East, so leaving him out in favor of someone like Bam Adebayo (with lesser production on a worse team) just didn’t feel right. Anybody averaging 21.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night on 52.8 percent shooting is certainly All-Star worthy.

Zach LaVine (wild card) — The competition for these final two wild card slots was ridiculously stacked, but Zach LaVine was an easy choice. The man deserves to be an All-Star, and hopefully we’ve learned our lesson with Devin Booker about what it means when a player balls out on a losing team: They’re not empty numbers, maybe they just need help! The difference here is the Chicago Bulls are only two games below .500, and LaVine is posting an incredible 29-5-5 stat line on 51.8 percent shooting from the floor and 43.4 percent from deep. It’d be a travesty if he missed the cut this year, regardless of how stacked the rest of the field is.

Julius Randle (wild card) — Like LaVine, Julius Randle was a clear choice for a wild card spot — even if it means leaving names like Trae Young, Bam Adebayo and Ben Simmons off the list. The New York Knicks have been a pleasant surprise, and like the Bulls, they’d be in the playoffs if the season ended today. For the record, Bam’s Heat and Trae’s Hawks would not. Sure, all four teams are below .500 and the margins between them are all pretty thin right now, but that’s the point! We can only go off of what we’ve seen so far, and with so much competition for these spots, even the tiniest of advantages matters. Throw in Randle’s 23.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game on 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and we’ve made a compelling enough case.

Eastern Conference snubs:

Trae Young — Young is the NBA’s 10th-leading scorer and third-leading assist man. His omission is painful, but his Atlanta Hawks are four games below .500 and the field is just that crowded. Great individual talents are going to miss the cut this year, and Ice Trae fits that category here.

Bam Adebayo — Another painful exclusion, especially since the Miami Heat’s struggles are not his fault; if anything, he’s been the singular constant keeping them afloat through injuries and COVID protocols. Bam is putting up a 19-9-5 stat line on 57 percent shooting and has emerged as a threat as a mid-range shooter, but it’s hard to justify putting him in over Sabonis or Randle.

Ben Simmons — Simmons’ 16-8-8 stat line on the No. 1 team in the East somehow isn’t enough to warrant an All-Star spot this year … even as he makes a push for Defensive Player of the Year. Joel Embiid might be shining too brightly, which matters when all anyone can ever talk about is how Simmons still can’t shoot 3s.

Nikola Vucevic — Poor Vooch. Not only is he going to miss out on a deserving All-Star spot, but he’s languishing away with an Orlando Magic squad that’s lost all its young talent to season-ending injuries. His 24.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should Orlando’s recent 4-1 spurt, but it’s not enough to snag him a spot.

Gordon Hayward — The Charlotte Hornets are in the playoff picture, and Gordon Hayward is the biggest reason why, but his 22-5-4 stat line for a sub.-500 team isn’t going to get the job done here. It’d be qwhite interesting if he made the cut.

More snubs — Jerami Grant, Fred VanVleet, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Collin Sexton, Malcolm Brogdon, Jrue Holiday, Pascal Siakam

Western Conference:

Damian Lillard (backcourt) — Dame probably should’ve gotten a starting spot over Luka Doncic, but they’re both All-Star locks either way. At this poins, Lillard should be in the MVP conversation for the way he’s carried the Portland Trail Blazers to the fifth spot in the West despite CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missing more than half the season. This is a no-brainer when you throw in his raw production (29.8 points, 7.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game, 38 percent shooting from 3 on 10.9 attempts per game) and late-game dominance (leading the league in crunch-time scoring with a 12-4 record in “clutch” scenarios).

Donovan Mitchell (backcourt) — Mitchell is putting up comparable numbers to another young All-Star he’s frequently compared to, Devin Booker. Book has been more efficient, but the difference is Spida’s Utah Jazz are on an absolute tear, winning 21 of their last 23 games to compile the NBA’s best record. This team deserves two All-Stars, and you could even make the case for a third. Mitchell is a lock.

Paul George (frontcourt) — PG may not be a top-20 scorer, but he’s right on the cusp, and he’s been shooting the damn lights out while doubling as the stifling, versatile wing defender he’s been for years now. Putting up 24.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game is nothing to sniff at, and that’s especially the case when he’s posting .511/.471/.894 shooting splits for the LA Clippers, the No. 2 team out West.

Anthony Davis (frontcourt) — Contrary to what Charles Barkley may think: Yes, Anthony Davis will be an All-Star; yes, he deserves it; and no, Jordan Clarkson shouldn’t get an All-Star spot over AD, who is averaging 22.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game for a title contender. The Los Angeles Lakers are already falling off without his two-way talents, so even if his numbers are slightly down this year, even if he’s missed games and even if he’s currently injured, he should be an automatic pick for the reserves.

Rudy Gobert (frontcourt) — Gobert is the best player on the league-leading Jazz, and he makes it five straight All-Star locks for the Western reserves. Not only is he a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year yet again, but his screen-setting and rim-running have never been more valuable to a Jazz offense that finds itself in the top 10. A stat line of 13.9 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game on 64 percent shooting certainly doesn’t hurt his resume either.

Devin Booker (wild card) — This is where things get dicey, but the Phoenix Suns have been too  good to not have an All-Star, and you could — and probably should — make a case for both their stars to get in. Book hasn’t been as consistent as Chris Paul, but he’s the Suns’ best scorer, he’s the face of the franchise, and since returning from a hamstring injury, he’s been totally unstoppable. After years of being criticized for putting up big numbers on losing teams, it’d be downright hypocritical to leave him out now because his numbers — 24.7 points and 4.3 assists per game on .501/.381/.848 shooting splits  — have slightly dipped playing for the No. 4 team out West.

Chris Paul (wild card) — CP3 has arguably been the Suns’ best player this season, especially when you factor in that at this point last year, they were 11-19. This season, with a top-5 defense and a top-10 offense, Phoenix suddenly looks like a dark-horse contender. The 8-0 run in the NBA bubble made this organization more attractive, but Paul joining the mix was their official leaping-off point. Now they’re 20-10, with a record that would be even better if this young team hadn’t coughed up a few double-digit leads to inferior teams. CP3’s 16.6 points, 8.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game may not look like much, but make no mistake about it: His impact on this young group makes him just as deserving as Booker.

Zion Williamson (injury replacement) — Like Thanos, Zion may be inevitable in this conversation. There’s a very good chance he bumps one of the Suns’ guards out of a wild card spot. But since it’s highly unlikely AD even plays in the All-Star Game, how neat would it be if it worked out to where both Booker and Paul got in, and Zion snugly fit into AD’s frontcourt spot as the most logical injury replacement? That’s not to say Williamson doesn’t deserve a spot outright, however; even on a 13-17 New Orleans Pelicans team, his 25.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists a night on 61.2 percent shooting are living up to the hype that’s been building around him for two years now.

Western Conference snubs:

DeMar DeRozan — It’s a shame to leave DeMar DeRozan out when he’s reinvented himself as a facilitator, averaging a career-high 6.9 assists to go with 19.8 points and 5.0 rebounds a night. But as good as he’s been, and as sneakily good as the 16-11 San Antonio Spurs have been, nobody outside of Texas will be fighting to slot this fading All-Star in over anyone from the list above.

Mike Conley — You could make a case for the Jazz to have three All-Stars … but you probably shouldn’t. There’s a certain sentimentality to what may be Conley’s last shot at his first All-Star appearance, but even as an advanced stats god on the league’s best team, his 16.4 points and 5.6 assists per game don’t scream All-Star. He’s also missed six games, which may not sound like much, but constitutes 20 percent of Utah’s season to this point. Conley’s been great, but naming him an All-Star over Booker, CP3 or Zion would be a major stretch.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — SGA is quietly becoming one of the best two-way guards in the league. He’s putting up a 23-7-5 stat line in his third season and is pretty clearly the best player on an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that’s somehow 12-19 despite everyone expecting them to be pushovers. Unfortunately, his team record and slightly lesser numbers than the guys ahead of Gilgeous-Alexander conspire against him. He should be in the hunt again next year though.

Brandon Ingram — Ingram has played like an All-Star, but the Pelicans are four games below .500, which means rewarding them with two All-Stars would be a farce. He’s neck-and-neck with Zion, averaging 23.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists a night, but Williamson has not only felt like New Orleans’ most popular player, but also their best player. For that reason, Ingram misses the cut.

De’Aaron Fox — If the Sacramento Kings were better than 12-18, maybe we’d be talking more about Fox’s 22.3 points, 7.1 assists and 3.2 boards per game. But they’re not, so we won’t (at least not in the All-Star debate).

More snubs — Ja Morant, Jamal Murray, Christian Wood

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